HM Treasury builds out its data science team


The UK’s HM Treasury has expanded its headcount of data scientists as part of its plans to drive “data transformation” across the department.

According to figures from a recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request, in 2021, the total staff budget for data scientists at the Treasury was just £13,213, with only three employees on the payroll. By 2022, this had risen to £283,339 in staff costs, with eight people employed in data science roles.

However, for the period of January 2023 to November 2023, according to the response to the FoI request, HM Treasury’s total spend on data scientist salaries had reached £503,983 – nearly doubling the size of its data science team to 14 staff.

An HM Treasury spokesperson told Computer Weekly: “In recognition of the need to ensure HM Treasury has the capability to modernise the way it manages and analyses data, the department appointed a chief data officer in 2022 and devised a new data strategy.

“To deliver this strategy – focused on skilled people and innovative practice – a new Data Management branch was set up alongside formal roles in Advanced Analytics,” they said. “These are helping drive data transformation across the department.” 

Responding to the findings, Mike McKee, CEO at Ataccama, said government departments handle by default a huge volume of complex and confidential data. Having the technology to deliver artificial intelligence (AI) is only half the story – training it on bad data containing errors and duplication will prevent it from reaching its full potential, he said.

“Given the increased level of investment already committed in the UK to AI innovation this year, it is important that the government bolsters its expertise in data science and data management tools to take advantage of AI readiness and achieve productivity gains in the public sector,” said McKee.

Meaningful insights

Data science involves using statistics, data analytics, coding and more to find meaningful insights in data that can improve all sorts of decision-making. In its 2022-23 Annual report and accounts, published in July last year, the Treasury detailed its work to establish a central Data Science Hub to identify and shape the opportunities for development of data science capability across the department.

“The hub has delivered several improvements across analysis, IT infrastructure and data architecture,” the report said, noting that the department appointed a chief data officer, John Kelly, in August 2022.

His role, the report said, is to formalise a data strategy and business plan that would “detail a pathway” for departmental data transformation.

“The chief data officer will lead the data science hub after additional investment in skills and technology to modernise data practice,” it said at the time. “The department has also begun a skills development programme alongside the ONS to introduce coding capability, across a range of roles, and with some exposure in every group.”

Tristan Wilkinson, chief for public sector growth at AND Digital, added: “The public sector is at a crossroads, with huge budget pressures forcing decision-makers to accelerate digital transformation to drive operational savings to protect public services. Data scientists are set to play a crucial role in delivering high-quality public services fit for the future, and this investment is a welcome step in the right direction, and one that should be accelerated.”

Data scientists are hard to find; the number of people in the UK with specialist data skills in the UK is insufficient to meet demand and has been for some time. A report published by the government in 2021 found there were as many as 178,000 unfilled data specialist roles – but that UK universities could only supply 10,000 a year.

Michael Thornton, senior director of public sector at Investigo, said: “Highly skilled data scientists have the potential to unlock substantial value for the public sector departments, boosting productivity whilst simultaneously reducing operational overheads. Accelerating the government’s in-house digital skills capabilities is an essential step for speeding up vital services, and this can only be achieved with a robust talent pipeline in place.”

The government’s 2021 Quantifying the UK data skills gap report found almost half of businesses (48%) were recruiting for roles that require hard data skills, but under half (46%) had struggled to recruit.

The report warned there was a knowledge and communication gap that could pose a barrier to fulfilling this demand. “Many students told us that they do not feel clear about the path to becoming a data scientist, even when they have sought guidance,” it said. “Given the limited supply of graduates likely to fill data roles, upskilling the workforce is vital to bridging the data skills gap.”

Data scientists in the UK can often earn between £55,000 and £69,500 according to salary data from recruitment company Robert Half. Data analysts can earn somewhere in the range of £31,750 to £55,000.


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